Beware Ye the Advocacy Group

In our landmark work Wedged we discuss the perverse incentives for politicians and media when it comes to politics. 

Politicians, whose mission should be to reform and govern through good policy, are driven by the incentive to win votes, which often does not align with their ideal mission. They are motivated to say and do what wins votes (particularly in the primaries, where partisan fringes dominate), even if this is at the expense of their beliefs, principles, and education.

Similarly: media, whose mission should be to inform the public, are driven by the incentive to make money. This means they are motivated to print or show what gets the  highest ratings, the most clicks and shares, etc, rather than what is most informative or accurate.

There is a third group in the political industry that we didn't cover, but deserves attention here: the advocacy group. We mean groups like the NRA (pro-gun freedom), Brady Campaign (pro-gun control) NRLC (pro-life), NARAL (pro-choice), HRC (LGBT advocacy), NOM (traditional marriage advocacy), etc. 

At first pass, these groups seem much more difficult to corrupt: they push a specific agenda and are beholden to people that really believe in that agenda. Ideally, they would be an authentic expression of their supporters' beliefs. 

Their perverse incentive is simply that they are motivated to continue existing

What's wrong with this?

The problem is that victory becomes dangerous to an organization whose justification for existence is a fight. True victory means dissolution.

Dissolution can be painful. We know that organizations have a collective sense of self-preservation, especially as they get big enough and have been around long enough. At a more personal level, the thought of laying off hundreds or thousands of people--including oneself--is highly counter to one's instincts. 

So often, these organizations just morph into trying to support something vaguely related. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union--founded in 1874--stuck around long after prohibition came and went... and is still around today, fighting the legalization of marijuana. 

Citing the desire to not "flail around" and try to find another cause to continue justifying their existence, Freedom to Marry shut down after the Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage nationwide. It's a newsworthy closure because of its rarity. 

Why Beware?

Some organizations, of course, persist because they don't have a clear definition of victory. It may seem counter-intuitive to expect gun control/freedom organizations to have such goals.

But lacking clear definitions of victory can be intentional, because victory means one cannot justify pumping donors for money. To get that money--and therefore persist--advocacy groups must be constantly framing themselves at the forefront of a war. In particular, the stakes in the war are huge and highly urgent and need lots of your money right now or something very terrible is going to happen, so donate today! This narrative raises money well, so it's the narrative that's pushed, regardless of the ground situation. (Can you imagine the  NRA, Brady, NARAL, or NRLC ever sending you an email that says, "hey nice work--things are looking pretty good for the moment?")

(Seriously, read the next fundraising email or homepage from an advocacy organization that you don't necessarily support.)

The National Organization for Marriage--unlike Freedom to Marry--has actually increased its fundraising since the Supreme Court decision. Perhaps declaring defeat is even harder than declaring victory.

In short, advocacy organizations--by their incentives--must always be looking for something flashy and emotional to fight about, in order to get you to part with your money. These fights may or may not be high-priority or on-mission, but the organization is motivated to frame them as both. By this mechanism, they also contribute to the wedge in American politics, turning every issue into an outrage-inducing drag-out fight, when it simply need not be.


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.